One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision

It’s fairly easy to start throwing abuse at the US space agency these days. Although NASA has been at the brunt of much critique over the years, the volume of the protests seem to be getting louder.

On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; we are fast approaching the retirement of the space shuttle (next year), and there will be a shortage of human-rated US launch systems to maintain the nation’s presence in space until the first Constellation Program launch in 2015. Five years of depending on Russia to get astronauts into space is a problem on so many levels, forcing NASA to think quick (over a few years) to find a solution. NASA has also been suffering attacks from ex-administrators, highlighting mismanagement and the squandering of funds. To an extent, the politics can defend mismanagement, citing space exploration as an expensive venture where new technology is being developed (is there little wonder that project managers slip up?). However, when economic times are tough, and every $2 million has to be accounted for by government departments, waste becomes a very big issue.

To make matters worse, on Tuesday, a carbon emissions monitoring satellite failed after launch, dropping into the ocean off the coast of Antarctica. Although launch failures come with the territory of space exploration, the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO) loss is a damaging sting for NASA. The OCO cost over a quarter of a billion dollars ($270 million) to develop.

What’s at the root cause of these troubles? NASA was never intended as a long-term space agency. That’s according to the authors of the “Unified Space Vision” (as opposed to the 2004 “Vision of Space Exploration”) in any case. I can understand the intent of this paper, but unfortunately, I think it oversteps the mark.

I will take the time to study the detail of Buzz et al.’s suggestions for the Unified Space Vision, as I’m sure the trio will share a valuable insight to how NASA should progress, but I’m already frustrated by some of the arguments picked out by the New Scientist coverage of the letter (a cut-down version of the draft letter will be sent to President Obama for his consideration).

The gist of the argument is that NASA lacks direction, and since we’ve already been to the Moon, why do we want to go back? Since the Apollo Program was cancelled in the early 1970’s, NASA’s mission was pretty much complete. It’s one and only aim, to get man to the Moon (thereby winning the Space Race), had been achieved. What then? What do you do with a space agency when it’s completed its mission? Rather than closing down the agency, it trundled on and gradually found its own direction, researching and developing space science technologies, pushing robots (not man) into space.

In part, I believe the importance of a lunar return mission may have been over-hyped, but the Moon remains a very important stepping stone for the future of manned space exploration. I would argue that although NASA won the Space Race, the US government failed to realise the importance of a manned lunar presence. If space funding continued at Apollo-era levels, a lunar colony wouldn’t be a pipe dream in the 21st Century; we’d still be there. These are very easy things to say in hindsight, at the end of the day, with Soviet power crumbling in the 1970’s, the threat of strategic struggle for the stars was something reserved for 007 movies, not real life. NASA had fulfilled its task, planting the US flag on the Moon, cut-backs were inevitable. The Moon was no longer of political importance.

That said, it would appear President Obama has seen the advantage of getting US astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. It was announced via Aviation Weekly that:

The fiscal 2010 NASA budget outline to be released by the Obama Administration Feb. 26 adds almost $700 million to the out-year figure proposed in the fiscal 2009 budget request submitted by former President Bush, and sticks with the goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.

The $18.7 billion that Obama will request for NASA – up from $18.026 billion for fiscal 2010 in the last Bush budget request – does not include the $1 billion NASA will receive in the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed Feb. 16.

Aviation Week has learned that in addition to the human-lunar return, Obama wants to continue robotic exploration with probes to Mars and other Solar System destinations, as well as a space telescope to probe deeper into the universe. — Frank Morring, Jr., Aviation Week

We’ll see if Aldrin’s Unified Space Vision makes a difference, but it would appear President Obama remains very motivated to see an American back on the Moon in a decade.

Read the full Unified Space Vision »

Source: New Scientist

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14 responses to “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

  1. Dr. Hsu asked the Moon Society for their endorsement, and based on the objections by many, including my own, I am informed they declined. I had submitted my own reaction to the report HERE: http://lunarnetworks.blogspot.com/2009/02/grand-space-development-strategy.html

    In short, as much as we all respect Colonel Aldrin, I will take Dr. Schmitt’s wisdom on importance of the Moon to our future success in Space Exploration, almost any day of the week. The work had some value, which made the criticism of it more difficult.

  2. There are several more Earthly reasons to go back to the Moon and gather more detailed data. We need more precise orbits for our satellites and then the gravity of the Moon actually needs to be better know. We want GNSS on the Moon and I’m sure we can come up with plenty other arguments as well that not necessarily are motivated by space exploration but rather management of our own planet.

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  4. Actually there are several factual errors here. First, I am on the Board of Directors of a new organization made up of 24 space advocacy and business groups. This organization has as one of its reference documents the full transcript of this paper and the focus of it was not about attacking NASA, (Feng Hsu actually refers to this group ” The Space Renaissance Initiative)and not about going to mars or the Moon as the main focus. The main focus was a unified Strategic vision, one where NASA still exists and is doing even more exploration but a vision where Space Development is the focus. So far in all the reports I haven’t read anyone picking this aspect up yet.

    The Aldrin- Hsu- Cox paper talks about creating a space development authority to foster concepts that will benefit the entire space sector such as developing cheap space access and collaborating with international partners both government and private sector. This is a win win for NASA and the private space sector, it will lead to less money being spent by the government on space missions, higher volume, and economic development of the solar system starting in LEO. Most of the crticism I have read is kneejerk reaction by people who have only skimmed over this document or who do not know the authors.

    And by the way, the Moon Society is part of this group as well and as far as I know initially had problems with it, but once we sat down and worked over the main points and the true focus of this document did agree with it (with some modifications) at this point there are some minor revisions being made as well so that’s not even the complete version. It’s not about going to the Moon, Mars or anywhere else as much as it is about providing the enabling systems and framework to develop a space economy where government missions can be much cheaper and the private sector can get much more involved. My own group- MarsDrive is part of this effort and we endorse this paper, because we have bothered to read it and understand it.

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  6. @Joel Raupe, Hi Joel,

    Totally right – I am always very skeptical about the drafting of letters telling NASA how best to do things, regardless of whether it originates from a legendary astronaut or not. Scientifically, I’d argue that it is paramount that we go back to the Moon, even if the politics of doing so may not be that obvious. Unfortunately, Aldrin’s words will resonate with many policy makers, only tying more knots in NASA’s progress. Technology issues to one side, I believe the Constellation Program will be the boldest push the world has ever seen to get man back into space – the constant criticisms will not serve to change NASA’s/Congress/Obama’s mind, they could unravel the foundations of the future of space flight.

    NASA needs to make bold decisions within the confines they have been presented with. Often they will be flawed, but at least they have a plan that can be enacted. However, there’s a lot to be said for stimulating a commercial infrastructure in LEO and beyond; NASA science can piggyback on commercial successes, then Aldrin’s space exploration “wish-list” can be entertained.

    Wow, they approached the Moon Society for a signature? Are they that out of touch? That is a bizarre move by anyone’s reckoning!

    Thanks for stopping by Joel!

    Cheers, Ian

  7. @Frank Stratford, Firstly, MarsDrive.com has been flagged as an “attack site” by Google, you might want to get that checked out: http://safebrowsing.clients.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?client=Firefox&hl=en-GB&site=http://www.marsdrive.com/

    Secondly, I stated clearly that I was reacting to the New Scientist coverage of the paper, with the intent on reading the paper itself once I’d had time to study it. Alas, in this post, I only used the paper to confirm what NS was talking about. On referring back to the draft paper on the NSS website, it had been removed (possibly due to those knee-jerk reactions you were talking about).

    …because we have bothered to read it and understand it.”

    Good for you, I look forward to reading about your synopsis of the finished article once you’ve sorted out the security alert on your site.

    Thanks.

  8. @Ian O’Neill, No worries Ian, our website was attacked recently on its server and we are in the process of building a new site so I wouldn’t recommend going there just yet.

    But you did open with the words “On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter ” But even at a glance that’s not how I read it. I have read scathing attacks on NASA before, that wasn’t one of them. Every agency can be improved, just as businesses strive to improve. Why is it so wrong to criticise NASA anyway? Yes, they have done amazing things in space, and continue to- just look at those rover on Mars for example. And we want that to continue. No one in that paper is saying scrap NASA. They are asking for reform and for true, wide reaching space development which will do much more for U.S national security, for jobs, and for the future than the current path.

    If the vision of this paper were to happen, it would mean many space projects could be pursued simultaneously. And it would be cheaper for the U.S taxpayer because it involves much more enhanced relationships/partnerships with the private space sector and international partners. I’m in contact with the authors as well and would like to think I have a reasonable take on what they are proposing. It’s an idea worth looking at.

  9. @Frank Stratford,

    Hi Frank, that sucks! Your site was hacked? I hope it comes back to its former glory, I’d often come across Marsdrive during my work with the Mars Foundation. I really liked it.

    Why is it so wrong to criticise NASA anyway?

    Totally right, I think NASA should be held accountable for any bad decisions made. Although I am a huge NASA advocate, the agency has some serious problems that need to be solved. My arguments about the MSL are probably indicative of some of my opinions on that matter (http://www.astroengine.com/?s=msl).

    If you want my honest stance on the future of spaceflight, I think we are seeing the seeds being sown in NASA contracts from private launch capabilities. There’s a long tradition of NASA contractor investment, but we are facing a new wave of innovation in start-ups like SpaceX. Suddenly we have a means to build the LEO space infrastructure to get man into space cheaply. We’ll see this in the next couple of years with cargo, but if there’s a profit to be made, companies will be there to fill the void.

    We’re not going to lose NASA, we will hopefully see it enhanced. They have the technology and the experience; corporations have the financial will, once we arrive at a point where space tourism and LEO delivery services are the norm, we’ll have our infrastructure.

    NASA is seeing this, and they are acting on it (albeit rather slowly). Unfortunately, NASA will continue to get bad media as it is underfunded, inefficient and percieved as lacking direction (this has nothing to do with their technological know-how and stunning science achievements). There’s no better direction than profit, and businesses will make the process efficient. I am sure there will be some foundations that need to be shifted in the NASA management structure, but that shouldn’t be feared, it certainly can’t continue in its current state.

    Government investment via NASA into the private (U.S.) spaceflight sector is no bad thing. It will do everything Robert Zubrin mentioned in a recent article, without the US President having to invoke an Apollo 2.0 to get man to Mars in an effort to stimulate the economy. Zubrin had some nice ideas, but unfortunately, they are 1960’s thoughts (and besides, you don’t send man to Mars to stimulate the economy). More on that here: http://www.astroengine.com/?p=3539

    In my view, I saw the draft letter (what I was able to read of it) as a criticism of the agency. Again, I was primarily reacting to the NS coverage, as I had little time with the draft, I was frustrated not to have read it in its entirety.

    Let me know when you’re back online, I’d be interested to see Marsdrive again.

    Cheers, Ian

    PS. Apologies I was a little short to your message earlier, it’s been a bad day in the Astroengine household!

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